What is Ice Cream, Anyway?

by Emily Anderson


The average American consumes more than 23 pounds of ice cream per year according to the International Dairy Foods Association. As an avid ice cream eater, I definitely contribute to this stat, and I do not discriminate on style. I love it in a waffle cone, between two cookies, wrapped in mochi, covered in sprinkles, rolled, whatever. I want it all! But when I actually thought about it, I had very little idea what ice cream lingo actually means. I did my research and now I will present to you my findings.

Webster defines ice cream as “a sweet flavored frozen food containing cream or butterfat and usually eggs.” In order to keep the ice cream from freezing into a solid block, it must be churned (AKA stirred) while it freezes. This churning also mixes in tiny air bubbles giving ice cream its creamy texture. “Slow Churned” and “Double Churned” brands often are supposed to be creamier and smoother.

The two most common ice creams in the US are hard serve and soft serve.

Plain old hard serve ice cream, sometimes called “Philadelphia Style,” is the traditional stuff. It’s made with sugar, cream, milkfat, and whatever flavors or fruits you want. It has to contain at least 20% cream and has a high milk fat content (10%-18%). Handel’s makes regular old hard ice cream, along with other options.

Soft serve, on the other hand, is a cheaper, lighter version of the hard stuff. It’s made with the same ingredients, but has a much lower milk fat content and contains much more air, making it very soft and fluffy. This is what the serve at McDonald’s, when the ice cream machine isn’t broken.

Gelato, the Italian version, also has the same ingredients but is different because it’s churned very slowly and is served at warmer temperatures than traditional American stuff. This makes it more dense and creamy instead of icy. Gelato isn’t that popular around here as it is in the rest of the world, but you can find it at the Mustard Seed.

So what about frozen custard? Is that the same as ice cream? The answer is basically yes, except frozen custard also contains at least 1.4% egg yolk and has about 30% less air than regular hard ice cream. Sometimes called “French Style,” this version is richer and thicker than most other styles. They do it like the French at Pav’s.

Frozen yogurt, AKA FroYo, is usually regular ice cream ingredients with yogurt added before the churning, giving it some tangy flavor. A lot of people seem to feel like frozen yogurt is somehow “healthier” than ice cream, but it isn’t. You can get your FroYo fix at popular chains like sweetFrog and Menchie’s.

Although it’s not at all ice cream, another common frozen treat is sorbet. This one is arguably healthier because it’s traditionally vegan. Made with just fruit juice, water, and sugar and churned like ice cream, it’s refreshing and fruity. They have bomb sorbet at Chill Artisan Ice Cream.

Sidenote: Italian Ice is the same as sorbet, but it’s hard, frozen and chipped apart instead of churned.

If you’re like me, you probably went your whole life up to this point thinking that sherbet was just a silly Midwestern pronunciation of sorbet, but it’s not! Sherbet, that rainbow stuff that comes in a clear plastic tub, is actually sorbet with added milk or cream. Some restaurants make vegan sherbet with coconut or almond milk.

Whatever your favorite style or flavor is, there is an ice cream out there for you! And now that you are armed with all this new information you can impress your friends and family the next time you’re eating ice cream together!